British filmmaker Christopher Smith’s Severance (2006) is a horror comedy based on a story by James Moran, and Moran and Smith co-wrote the script. It belongs to the slasher sub-genre, perhaps the most worn-out horror genre set-up. Whether it’s blood-thirsty mountain men, mutants, lone stalkers, and zombies, we have witnessed multiple times the on-screen butchery of idiotic and horny city people in the backwoods. Nevertheless, Christopher Smith’s Severance saves itself from falling into the chasm of monotony by efficiently layering it with comedy. Specifically, the awkward, tongue-in-cheek banter, aka the British humor, keeps us hooked and successfully integrates the horror/gory elements.
Severance also has a fine ensemble spearheaded by actor and presenter Danny Dyer. Though Christopher Smith doesn’t come anywhere close to Edgar Wright’s mastery of visual comedy, Severance – at least from a narrative standpoint – pumps life into an uninteresting storyline, just like what Shaun of the Dead (2004) did with the zombie apocalypse tale. Now let’s get into the spoiler-filled, blood-soaked, entrails and limbs-strewn story, where a team-building meet goes horribly and amusingly wrong.
Severance (2006) Plot Explained:
The Odd Bunch of Arms Company Office Workers
Severance opens with a familiar prologue as a couple of young women and a middle-aged man are being chased through the dark woods by an unseen perpetrator(s). The place is probably full of traps. The two women fall into a pit, and the man ignores their plea for help to run ahead. But soon, he steps into a trap that causes him to hang upside down. The young women strip down, use a stick and their clothes to make a rope, and climb out of the pit. The man, however, has no hopes of escaping. A man with a hunting knife disembowels his prey. The title ‘Severance’ graces the screen as the bloody profusely flows upon the gutted man’s face.
Severance, nevertheless, is a term most of us got acquainted with within a corporate atmosphere. In fact, the prologue cuts to a bunch of British white-collar workers traveling in a bus. The film has been unofficially tagged as Deliverance meets The Office, which instantly makes sense. Seven employees of the Palisade Defence company are traveling to a team-building weekend in the back woods of Eastern Europe, somewhere between Hungary and Romania. Richard (Tim McInnerny) is the team leader. He might have learned everything about leadership from management manuals. Hence, he mistakes patronizing and pompousness as the quality of a leader.
Naturally, some of his team members mock his ineptitude. This includes Harris (Toby Stephens) and Jill (Claudie Blakley). Harris is a Cambridge man who belittles Richard’s authority at every opportunity. Jill is bookish (she is reading The Tombstone Imperative by Andrew Weir – a book about passenger aircraft safety), a politically correct employee committed to developing ‘humane’ weapons. Billy (Babou Cessay) is an all-rounder and the token black guy. He dutifully takes down the notes recited by Richard. While Billy seems to be a skillful worker who acknowledges the authority of Richard, Gordon (Andy Nyman) is a simple and goofy yes-man who is often left to do tedious chores.
Then there’s the young self-assertive American woman, Maggie (Laura Harris), upon whom every man in the team has a crush. But she develops a liking for the laid-back and seriously unserious Steve (Danny Dyer). When we first see him, he is logged into a site named ‘Balkan Babes’ and booking escort service for the weekend. He smokes in the bus toilet, triggering the smoke alarm and adding to the irritability of the non-English speaking driver. Subsequently, he eats a bunch of ‘magic mushrooms,’ explaining to Maggie that it will give him a ‘nice, chilled-out high.’ Danny comes across as a horny teenager than a weapons manufacturing company employee. But he is the unlikeliest and most entertaining protagonist of this slasher horror/comedy.
Establishing the Humour and the Subtext
Palisade Defence’s team-building weekend and conference is set to unfold in a luxury lodge, and the President of the company, George Cinders (David Gilliam), will be present at the lodge. But before that, writers James Moran and Smith establish the narrative’s comedic layer through the office workers’ banter on the bus. They travel in a bus that carries the word ‘Palisade Defence’ on all sides, and inside the bus, a corporate video made by the sales team features President George Cinders. Against the backdrop of weapons-induced carnage, George declares, “When you see our symbol, you know you’re in safe hands.” The clip also throws up a few ‘keywords’ and ‘jargon’ that amps up the absurdity factor.
The silly corporate video irks Jill for a different reason. She asks Richard, “Why are all the actors in the video White?” Furthermore, she sardonically declares that it looks like a ‘recruitment video for Hitler Youth.” To counter her, Richard shows a black man in a lab coat and seeks approval of sorts from Billy. But the only black guy in the clip pulls up a gun and demonstrates its firepower, pushing Harris to laugh heartily.
The humor quotient in this well-written opening scene sets up the absurd elements of their job, the characters’ idiosyncrasies, and the team’s clumsy interpersonal communication. Some have all the qualifications to be the perfect victim in a slasher flick. Of course, slasher movie characters often come across as easily dispensable morons. The group in Severance ticks all those boxes.
The interesting subtext here is that they already work for the devil, earning our nonchalance, as they market and sell deadly weapons like landmines that are inventively called ‘Platoon busters.’ We wait for the employees of a high-tech weapons manufacturer to be terrorized and slashed by the forest dwellers’ crudest of weapons. While Christopher Smith doesn’t deviate from the typical structure of a slasher flick, the clever, subtext-filled comedy and enjoyable subversions keep us invested in the narrative.
A Detour and the Dark Story of the Lodge
Just as Steve is munching down the magic mushrooms, the bus comes to a sudden halt as a large tree blocks the road. Before that, someone lurking in the woods watches the entry of the Palisade company bus into their territory. When Richard asks the local bus driver to take a detour through the woods to reach the lodge, he vehemently denies the idea. Instead of calmly negotiating with the agitated driver, Richard flexes his authority, which only leads to the driver firmly standing his ground. Richard and his team take their belongings and mobile phones with no signal to walk through the woods. Richard looks at the map and tells Billy that it’s just an inch in the map from their position to the destination. While Richard assumes an inch could be a mile, Billy questions what if it’s more.
Meanwhile, the hallucinogenic mushroom unleashes its power on Steve. He goes through a bad trip, and the rest of the team finds him deep in the woods, naked from the waist down, and taking a piss. Eventually, they reach a nearly rundown place, which Richard emphasizes is the lodge. Jill confronts him by citing George’s promise of the team-building weekend at Palisade’s ‘newly-acquired luxury lodge.’ But Richard makes a hilariously banal speech about working together and the impossibility of spelling ‘Success’ without U. Steve mentally isn’t fully there, whereas the others decide to stay there instead of listening to another one of Richard’s speeches.
Harris enters the building’s basement to switch on the generator. But he finds a file cabinet with many files in the Russian language. Later at the dining table, as Gordon serves a pie, the rest talk about the lodge being a lunatic asylum. Harris tells a campy story about the place that’s set in the time before First World War. His tale unfurls with the aesthetics of silent cinema, and his detective protagonist wears a suit and a top hat (his long nails make him look like Nosferatu).
The detective enters the mental asylum, only to find that the lunatics have imprisoned the doctors and orderlies. The detective gets killed, and Palisade sent men to dispense nerve agents to massacre the inmates. He finishes his tale by saying that one inmate survived and swore revenge on every Palisade employee.
Jill counters Harris’ story and states there’s some truth to it. She says it all happened in the 90s after the Soviet Union broke up. Such remote places were supposedly turned into detention centers for war criminals. These war criminals had probably wiped out entire villages without any feelings of remorse or guilt. When ‘curing’ them failed, the government decided to kill them with the help of Palisade’s weapons. However, Jill ominously shares that a few ran away into the woods and hid in nearby buildings. She further emphasizes that they wouldn’t be hell-bent on revenge but would only focus on survival.
While Maggie dismisses both stories, Steve comes up with his own juvenile take. He declares that this was neither a prison nor a mental asylum but a sex lodge. His dirty fantasy includes ‘naughty’ nurses taking care of old men who can’t ‘get it up.’ Richard’s embarrassing conversation with Maggie follows it. Suddenly, the fun atmosphere turns menacing as Steve finds a tooth inside the pie. When the group questions how Gordon made the pie, he casually states that he found it and thought it was a ‘welcome gift.’
The Paintballs and Bear Traps
After everyone goes to their respective rooms to sleep, Jill wakes up to go to the restroom. She returns to her room and glances outside her window to find a masked man in the tree. The resulting scream pierces every corner of the lodge, and all six come to her rescue. Harris and Billy go outside to investigate Jill’s claims. They find a structure built into the trees, but it thankfully doesn’t extend to the window. Nevertheless, Maggie, Jill, and Harris stress that they leave the place in the morning. Harris says that someone can walk to a nearby hill, find a signal, and call the coach driver. Richard first threatens his team that they will lose their job. But when the trio stands firm, he relents a bit and promises to discuss it in the morning.
When Jill feels the same way in the morning, Richard sends her and Harris to call the driver. Meanwhile, he wants the rest to do some team-building work in the form of paintballing. During their walk, Jill and Harris talk about Jill’s project, which is mobilization units. Those will pin their target to the floor instead of blowing up everyone like a landmine. She calls it ‘humane’ and wonders why they still create such ‘sick weapons in the 21st century.’ When Jill quips ‘guillotine seems more humane’ [compared to the weapons they make], Harris counters it by narrating the Marie-Antoniette lore and how after getting guillotined, her ‘head saw blood pumping out of her own stump.’
Their banter is cut short as Jill and Harris find the bus they came in. It’s crashed, and the driver is found nearby, brutally murdered. Harris drives the bus back to the lodge as the rest play paintball, with Gordon as the referee. Billy talks about his feelings for Maggie with Steve but casually states that she likes Steve. The ensuing distracted look Steve leads to the pair losing the paintball battle to Richard and Maggie’s team. Later, as Gordon preaches the quartet about the game’s rules, everyone takes a shot at him. An enraged Gordon condemns their act, emphasizing how dangerous it is.
But he turns back to unwittingly step into a bear trap. Richard stands shell-shocked as Maggie and Billy rush to help Gordon. Steve and Billy try to open the trap, but it’s difficult for Gordon to lift his leg, hence making it more painful as the trap fiercely clamps down. The panic pushes Gordon to move, and the lower end of his leg remains in the trap. He writhes in indescribable agony, and they discover that the place is full of traps. Jill and Harris reach in time with the bus to convey the news of the driver’s murder, only to witness the carnage.
Steve is asked to take the severed part of the leg and secure it inside the cooler on the bus. What follows is the film’s first of many uncomfortable, darkly humorous moments as Steve tries different ways to place the leg in the cooler. They carry Gordon, hop onto the bus, and Harris drives as fast as he can.
Let the Killings Begin
Spike strips are thrown on the road. The speeding bus topples. Fortunately, for our viewing pleasure, all seven, including the lower-leg-missing Gordon, survives the accident, only to meet a more gory death. The first to go is Harris. He lies away a little distance from the toppled bus. A masked man wielding a machete perfectly beheads him. The head rolls. Harris glances and winks at the blood pouring from his stump, just like Marie-Antoniette. Jill is the first to emerge from the bus. Injured in the head, the shocked Jill walks into the woods and is intercepted by another masked killer.
The other five – Richard, Gordon, Billy, Maggie, and Steve – exit the bus. Billy and Maggie decide that they should first lock themselves in the lodge till the morning and then make further decisions. As they return to the lodge, carrying Gordon, a gagged Jill is tied to a tree. She is burnt using a flamethrower; a cruel death for a woman who worked on ‘humane’ weapons. Back at the lodge, Maggie wonders if Jill’s stories about the place are true. She states this is revenge since the masked savages saw the logo and the name on the bus. But Richard, ever the corporate stooge, says there can be nothing immoral going on in a public company. Billy, the man of action, points out that nothing can be done by arguing. They board up the windows, lock the doors, and relax.
But when Maggie and Steve have a smoke, a burly man drags Gordon into the labyrinthine basement. The man straps him to a chair, cutting bits and pieces from his chest and stomach. When Billy finds Gordon missing, the four travel down the basement to find dead animals and dark cells. A petrified Richard runs up the stairs, but Billy and Maggie courageously open the door to find Gordon bearing the carved logo of Palisade. The man shoots down Billy. Steve hides in the closet upstairs. Maggie evades the shotgun-wielding guy to come upstairs. Meanwhile, Richard runs into the woods only to step into a landmine.
Maggie falls down the rickety wooden floor and alerts the killer. Just as he aims his shotgun at her, Steve stabs him with a knife, finally jumping into action. Maggie shoots the guy with his gun. The survivors come out of the lodge and come across a group of masked men with guns, wearing camouflage clothing. Maggie kills one guy with the last bullet, and they both run into the woods.
Severance (2006) Movie Ending Explained:
The Seriocomic Fight for Survival
Maggie and Steve pass Richard. Even the killers leave the standing dead man. The duo eventually reaches the place that’s the original Palisade Luxury Lodge. Inside, George is having a good time with the two escorts Steve booked for himself. Upon briefing George about the deadly conflict, the President of Palisade gets charged up and unveils his new weapon, which looks like a bazooka. He goes outside the lodge, confronts the masked men, and fires the weapon. To everyone’s dismay, except the killers, the weapon launches itself like a rocket, flies high, and hits an aircraft.
All the surviving five, including the two escorts, run for their lives. Now the prologue looks familiar, and we know what’s awaiting George. Maggie is caught in a trap and hangs upside down. Steve is drawn into a fight with a masked guy, and he thrusts a knife deep into the guy’s nether regions and makes him sit down. Maggie’s pursuer tries to sexually assault her, but she bludgeons him to death with a rock. She runs further to find the large, abandoned camp, which was also hinted at in Jill’s story.
Maggie finds a working landline phone. That’s not the joke. But like everywhere, the emergency call made from East European backwoods also greets the caller with hold music. Maggie thinks her chances of survival are better by confronting the killers. She comes face-to-face with the flamethrower guy. Meanwhile, an injured Steve sits down by a tree and comes across a cloth rope stick. Steve looks into the pit at the naked escorts, though the scenario he had in mind while hiring them was different.
The flamethrower guy charges at a wounded Maggie with an axe. But firepower takes him down. The sub-machinegun fire and a gratuitous showcase of bare breasts perhaps winkingly tick off the few remaining boxes of the slasher genre elements. The four get into a boat and sail down the river into the sunset. But not before a heavily injured Steve, lying down on Maggie’s lap, utters the significant final word and the question of the film: “Foursome?”
Severance (2006) Movie Analysis:
There’s nothing distinct about Christopher Smith’s Severance in terms of plot elements and mise en scene. It also doesn’t offer any last-minute twist ending. What Smith and Moran did pretty well was placing the humor at the right moments throughout the narrative. While the comedy arises out of character quirks and through our anticipation of carnage in the earlier half, the later half is full of smartly-staged wicked moments. Once the killing starts, we wonder whether we should laugh out loud at the irony of the situation or be shocked at the brutality of the violence. The characterizations and the performances hold the film together. The individuals in the narrative might not be likable or relatable, yet every character is distinct enough to leave a mark.
The narrative’s gory parts withhold the impact to unsettle us. The bear traps, land mines, disembowelment, beheading, immolating – the deaths are terrifying. The killings of the savages, on the other hand, are deliberately absurd and comical. In fact, the film never takes itself too seriously. The sheer absurdity of Steve surviving, in the end, is a testament to that approach. The satirical layer of Severance doesn’t always work, but it takes a nice dig at the warmongers and at these boys with toys.
American horror narratives have often revisited the premise from the truly chilling Deliverance (1972) to the 2006 remake of Hills Have Eyes and the many Wrong Turns. The latest Wrong Turn (2021) utilized the caught-in-the-backwoods scenario to offer a nauseatingly serious take on right-wing militias. While Severance has a subtext, it doesn’t fall into the trap of overstaying its welcome in the name of doing something inventive. The film’s lean and mean approach, plus the comedy, reminded me of Dog Soldiers (2002) and An American Werewolf in London (1981), respectively. Overall, Severance (96 minutes) is an absolutely entertaining work that effortlessly integrates horror and humor.